Modern history

artAn Age of Disbelief: The Myths of the American Debunkers

At the same time, another line of interpretation was also developing—a school of historical skepticism that was hostile to the myth of the midnight ride for different reasons. Early expressions of this attitude appeared in an unexpected place—the writings of the Adams family. They had a score to settle with Paul Revere. In the early republic Revere had become a high Federalist, in company with many merchants and manufacturers in New England who had little liking for the presidency of John Adams, and even less for what Boston regarded as the “apostasy” of John Quincy Adams. That hostility was reciprocated by the Adams family toward Boston in general, State Street in particular, and Paul Revere among the rest. The Adamses expressed strong resentment against what they regarded as the absurd inflation of Paul Revere’s reputation. In 1909, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., expressed his outrage “in the matter of Mr. Longfellow, and the strange perversion he has given to historical facts as respects Paul Revere and his famous ride.” Adams wrote that the duty of the historian was to “exorcise, so to speak, a popularly accepted legend.” Adams’s strongest resentment was against Longfellow, but there was no love lost for Paul Revere. 32

Others were happy to take up this task of historical “exorcism.” As early as 1896, Helen More contributed a sarcastic scrap of light verse called “What’s in a Name?” which suggested that William Dawes did the work and Paul Revere got the credit.

Tis all very well for the children to hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere;

But why should my name be quite forgot

Who rode as boldly and well, God wot?

Why, should I ask? The reason is clear—

My name was Dawes and his Revere. 33

The prominence of William Dawes increased when his descendant Charles Dawes became Vice President of the United States under Calvin Coolidge. Several accounts asserted (with as much inaccuracy as Stiles and Longfellow) that Dawes had succeeded in reaching Concord when Paul Revere was arrested. There was no truth in this idea, but it was widely repeated.

In the popular press, Paul Revere became increasingly an object of good-humored derision. The Boston Globe on April 19, 1914, marked the anniversary of the midnight ride by publishing an irreverent satire called “The Ride of the Ghost of Paul Revere, by Two Long Fellows.”

It was two by the village clock

When his inner tube gave a hiss.

He felt the car come down with a shock,

He jacked, and pried, and pumped, and said,

“I wish I’d come on a horse instead.”

This mood grew stronger in the era that followed the First World War, when patriotic symbols everywhere came to be regarded with increasing suspicion. The word “debunk” was first recorded in 1923 to describe this new school of historical criticism. The legend of Paul Revere’s ride instantly became a favorite target. There was little anger or hostility in this literature, but much good-natured contempt, and sophomoric humor that rings strangely in the ear of another generation. 34

Even Paul Revere’s horse was debunked. Patriotic engravers in the 19th century had represented Brown Beauty as a fine-boned thoroughbred. Debunkers in the 20th century took pleasure in proclaiming that Paul Revere was actually mounted on a plodding plough horse. That revision was as mistaken as the image it was meant to correct, but it came to be widely repeated in the 1920s, and has crept into the historical literature.

In 1923, one exceptionally bold debunker went so far as to assert that the midnight ride never happened at all. At that point, the President of the United States felt compelled to intervene. “Only a few days ago,” Warren Harding declared with high indignation, “an iconoclastic American said there never was a ride by Paul Revere.” The President was shaky in his facts, but rock-solid in support of Paul Revere. “Somebody made the ride,” he reasoned, “and stirred the minutemen in the colonies to fight the battle of Lexington, which was the beginning of independence in the new Republic in America. I love the story of Paul Revere, whether he rode or not.” 35

Through the 1920s, debunkers were strongly resisted by filiopietists who defended the patriot myths with high enthusiasm, sometimes in surprising ways. In 1922, Captain E. B. Lyon of the U.S. Army followed the path of Paul Revere’s midnight ride in a military aircraft, dropping “patriotic pamphlets” along the way. 36

The debunkers were undeterred by flying filiopietists and presidential reprimands. With the growing antiwar movement of the 1930s they also turned their attentions to the myth of the minutemen, who were increasingly represented as cowardly country bumpkins, and bad shots to boot. 37 In the late 1930s an army officer was detailed to make a study of the battles of Lexington and Concord. He concluded that there was nothing of professional interest to be learned from the event. 38

On the midnight ride, both debunkers and filiopietists continued to be very active through the 1930s, much to the bewilderment of the reading public. H. L. Mencken’s irreverent magazine The American Mercury was publishing iconoclastic attacks on the legend of Paul Revere as late as 1938. 39 When Esther Forbes brought out her biography of Paul Revere in 1942, she reported in amazement, “Since I have begun on this book I have been asked several times if it is true that Paul Revere never took that ride at all.” 40

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